Sullivan vows ‘further action’ after US carries out retaliatory strikes on Iranian-linked militia targets

Originally Published: 04 FEB 24 10:30 ET
Updated: 04 FEB 24 11:46 ET

(CNN) — The US will take “further action” after conducting major airstrikes over the weekend against Iranian-backed militias who have carried out attacks on US troops in the Middle East, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday.

“I would just say that the president was clear when he ordered them and when he conducted them that that was the beginning of our response and there will be more steps to come,” Sullivan told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union.”

Sullivan, in response to Bash asking whether that meant the US was planning additional strikes, said, “What it means is that we will take further action.

“I’m not going to, obviously, describe the character of that action because I don’t want to telegraph our punches,” he said.

Sullivan’s comments comes after the US has adopted a “multi-tiered” response to the drone attack that killed three US service members and wounded more than 40 others last week. The attack brought the worst loss of US military life in the region in nearly three years and the first US military fatalities since the war in Gaza erupted.

On Friday, the US hit 85 targets across seven locations in Iraq and Syria, a significant escalation in tensions between the US and Iran-backed groups attacking American bases across the region in protest of Israel’s war in Gaza. Believed to be funded and trained by Iran, these groups view the US as responsible for Israel’s actions by supplying weapons to the Jewish state and failing to force a ceasefire.

The US strikes killed at least 16 people in Iraq, including civilians, and injured 25 others, the Iraqi government said Friday. The attacks hit areas close to the border with Syria and targeted facilities used by Iranian-linked al Hashd al Shabi — or Popular Mobilization Units — in the Iraqi city of Al-Qaim, Iraqi officials said.

The US is “still assessing the battle damage” from Friday night’s strikes in Iraq and Syria, Sullivan said, and “our CENTCOM, Central Command, is looking at the capabilities we reduced and the casualties that were incurred.”

CNN cannot independently verify the number or nature of the casualties.

The next day, the US and UK conducted strikes on at least 30 Houthi targets in Yemen from air and surface platforms, including fighter jets, with the support of several other countries.

Saturday’s strikes specifically targeted Houthi weapons storage facilities and equipment. The Houthis responded by saying they will not stop until Israel ends its operations in Gaza.

As to whether the US is now embroiled in a regional conflict, Sullivan maintained that the Iran-backed militia attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria are separate from the Houthi strikes on Red Sea shipping, calling them “distinct but related challenges.”

But he said that Tehran is at the center of most of it.

“Iran has a significant and pernicious responsibility for much of the instability in the Middle East,” he said. “And that has to be factored into how we approach everything that we’re doing and how Israel has to approach everything it’s doing.”

The Biden administration is threading a needle – it wants to deter and stop further attacks but avoid a full-scale conflict with Iran in a region already roiled by the continuing Israel-Hamas war.

“We are not looking to take the United States to war,” Sullivan said. “So we are going to continue to pursue a policy that goes down both of those lines simultaneously, that responds with force and clarity, as we did on Friday night, but also that continues to hew to an approach that does not get the United States pulled into a war that we have seen too frequently in the Middle East.”

Asked whether the US would rule out strikes inside Iran, Sullivan said he is “not going to rule in and rule out any activity anywhere,” but that “the president will do what he thinks needs to be done.”

A senior administration official previously confirmed to CNN that the US will not attack on Iranian soil and will focus only on targets outside of the country.

Tehran has repeatedly said it does not seek conflict. On Friday, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said his country will not initiate a war but will “respond strongly.”

CNN’s Jack Forrest, Haley BritzkyKevin LiptakOren Liebermann and Nadeen Ebrahim contributed to this report

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